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NERC pegs its future to business and growth

Seven themes give way to three grand challenges

The Natural Environment Research Council is planning an ambitious strategy that will align its work more closely to the government’s growth agenda from 2013, it emerged at a meeting in Manchester last week.

Speaking at the event for NERC researchers, chief executive Duncan Wingham said NERC is “off the pace” with the growth agenda and needs to work more effectively with businesses.

The strategy, originally due to be published next month but now expected in January or February, will see the council moving away from its existing seven research themes. Instead, it will take what it describes as a more bottom-up approach to funding research and focus on three grand challenges: the security of natural resources, research into environmental hazards and adapting to environmental change.

Wingham said the previous strategy focused too heavily on detail and, as a consequence, lost sight of the bigger picture. As well as making funding less prescriptive, he added that the council will also try to be “more fleet of foot” in helping researchers work with partners, particularly those in industry.

“NERC is like a supertanker—it’s very bad at responding quickly to things and often misses out, with some of the most exciting research being funded in other ways,” Bob Holdsworth, professor of structural geology in the department of Earth sciences at the University of Durham, says. “I like the idea—whether it’ll be able to deliver on this one, I don’t know.”

Phil Heads, interim director of strategy and partnerships at NERC, said the strategy will be geared much more towards communicating with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, end-users and businesses rather than looking inwards. This focus is reflected in the current working title for the document, Business of the Environment: NERC’s next steps.

According to Holdsworth, this is a “very significant and important change”. “If NERC tries to play it any other way [to government] they’re going to suffer the consequences,” he says.

Researchers have generally welcomed the idea of a different approach, but there are questions about how the council will decide which research programmes to invest in and the extent to which researchers will be involved in the decision making.

“I think [the three strategic strands] are absolutely appropriate,” says Holdsworth. “But I would say you must try to keep significant blue-sky science through responsive mode, if you’re to enable bottom-up science.”

The council may also get rid of its ‘theme leaders’—researchers who advised the council on which projects to fund within the seven areas. Roy Harrison, a professor in the University of Birmingham’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences and until recently the leader of NERC’s environment, pollution and human health theme, says he thought this system was “hugely successful”. While he did not attend the Manchester event, he warns that the council must be careful not to make a “backwards move”.

“The fundamental problem, to which there is no solution, is that there’s not enough money,” he says. “Having theme leaders was an excellent way of prioritising research, and I can’t see any alternative models being superior.”

NERC is also considering changing the way it allocates pathways to impact money, which is currently awarded to some researchers to carry out the activities described in the impact statements that accompany their funding applications.

The council invests £400,000 to £500,000 each year from its responsive mode funding to support impact work and is now considering handing this funding to institutions or departments rather than individuals.

Damon Teagle, a professor of geochemistry at the University of Southampton, says this would be welcome and would help to make the system “clearer and more efficient”.

NERC expects to consult on the document early in 2013, and publish the finalised strategy in June or July.